Cadillac & Power-Over Sexuality

For a year or two Cadillac had an ad campaign featuring their sleek new black models being driven by very attractive forty-something people (I recall one ad with a man and another with a woman). The tagline of the commercials was a question, “When you turn your car on does it return the favor?” As I suggested to my kids when they got old enough to watch television, and also applicable here, watch the programs you like but pay particular attention to the commercials. They often say more about our culture and its messages and appeals to us than the programs do.
What is Cadillac selling in this ad? Well cars of course, but to what end? In a long tradition of American culture and the marketing based on it, we are continuing to sell cars as more than a safe, efficient and comfortable means of getting from one place to another. We are adding in the sexual thrill of being turned on by this big electro-mechanical “love machine” whenever we command it by engaging the ignition. Real human lovers are generally much more problematic, if you are lucky enough to have one. The circumstances and setting needs to be right and they need to be “in the mood” for, and otherwise comfortable with, a sexual encounter.

We are a culture that looks back on its past and present and continues to mythologize men who have control over women’s sexuality to the point that it at least appears that when the man wants sex he can have it. This mythology is all around us (particularly in movies and television) of ancient tales of harem slaves to more modern ones of rock star groupies or beautiful prostitutes (e.g. “Pretty Woman”) and a hundred different other variations. The flip side is tales of modern dads who intimidate boyfriends who threaten to take their daughter’s virginity. The latter most of us find particularly humorous and “only natural”, a father protecting “daddy’s girl” from the big bad world of sexual predation.

These stories represent the modern transmission of ancient patriarchal myths that “real men”, “alpha males” and “top dogs” control women and particularly women’s sexuality. But for many of us contemporary males who are exposed to all these messages from the deep past, we are not “privileged” with the circumstances to sexually control women or control when and where we get sexual satisfaction delivered by the woman we desire.

So Cadillac weighs in with their slick ad campaign, not really promising, but just suggesting perhaps that your relationship with your car can have more of a sexual dimension, and that “added value” makes a luxury car a worthwhile investment. General Motors might argue that “turn-ons” don’t have to be sexual, but I think most of us know what that phrase generally means.

Certainly America has a long history and mythology around guys acquiring “hot cars” to “pick up chicks” and have sexual encounters in the back seat. Nowhere is this more forthrightly celebrated than in the musical “Grease” and its song “Greased Lightning” with the sexually explicit “it’s a real pussy wagon” buried in its lyric (and often removed I imagine when the show is done by school kids).

And in a nod to feminism, women’s liberation, Cosmopolitan magazine and “Sex in the City”, Cadillac demonstrates that women too can exercise sexual control previously reserved for just men. Why should the modern woman not have access to all the candy in the patriarchal candy store, if she is willing and able to make that monthly loan or lease payment? Isn’t this a step forward?

If you want to compare this Cadillac campaign (featuring Kate Walsh) with something alternative, remember the Ford campaign in the 1980s featuring Lindsey Wagner. She talked straight to the camera about the practicality and value of Ford’s offerings. There was not that same sub-current of power-over sexuality.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here and blowing a little spicy marketing language way out of proportion? Maybe so!

Some people say that by the time we are sophisticated enough to decode these underlying messages in commercials we already have those messages embedded without conscious examination in our subconscious. But it does not have to be that way. Even when my kids were five years old, I tried to teach (or at least model) examining the underlying cultural messages of advertising, starting with the toy ads that sold guns and other aggressive toys to boys and Barbies and that whole fem look hot thing for girls. I suggested that they see if they could find any commercials where the boys and girls are playing together. I recall very few in that 1990s timeframe.

Even today when Sally and I see commercials aimed at young kids, they are either for boys or for girls and rarely for both. The boy commercials are infused with action, speed, adventure and conflict. The girl ones are mostly pretty, frilly sweet, and more about ones appearance, but with more ’tude than perhaps 20 years ago.

FYI… Both my kids, now young adults, have grown up eschewing sexy cars, brand name clothes and the like. They are all about their unique self-realization and building positive community around them, not the patriarchal obsession with competing and consuming for higher “ranking”.

I believe we have to be vigilant with each other, and especially with our kids to somehow call out and come to grip with this subtle transmission of patriarchal thinking, or we will continue to accept it as “just the way things are”, and “men are from Mars and women from Venus” and all that modern regurgitation of this ancient ideology. We are all best served if we take collective and proactive responsibility for the messages our culture conveys to the next generation so are species can continue its evolution.

5 replies on “Cadillac & Power-Over Sexuality”

  1. So do you have an opinion of the current Bridgestone Tires television advertisement where the guy throws his wife out of the car to keep his Bridgestone Tires?

  2. Robin… thanks for the tip! That is a great illustration of the power-over myth being perpetuated through what some would call humor!

  3. You’re welcome Cooper.

    It came to mind immediately when I saw this blog post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *